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A 10-year-old Russian girl has died from AIDS. Certain that the disease is a hoax, her parents wouldn’t let doctors treat her

Source: Meduza
Svetlana Kholyavchuk / Interpress / TASS

On August 27, a 10-year-old girl in St. Petersburg died from AIDS. The girl’s adoptive father is a Russian Orthodox priest and a so-called “HIV dissident,” meaning that he doesn’t believe in the existence of the human immunodeficiency virus. Citing religious reasons, he refused to let doctors treat his adopted daughter’s illness. Physicians, activists, and courts tried to save the girl’s life, but they failed to persuade the family to let her receive antiretroviral drugs. Meduza examines the chain of events that led to this tragic death.

A Russian Orthodox family adopted the girl from an orphanage a few years ago (officials won’t release the exact date when custody was signed over). A spokesperson for St. Petersburg's children’s rights office has confirmed that a devoutly religious Russian Orthodox family adopted Kristina (Meduza has changed this name to protect the girl’s identity). According to the news site Fontanka, Kristina’s adoptive father was a Russian Orthodox priest. When custody was signed over, Kristina’s adoptive parents were warned that she was born diagnosed with HIV, but this didn’t stop anyone. The family had already raised several adopted children with various illnesses. Over the next few years (it’s unclear how many years Kristina spent in this family, given the uncertainty about the time of her adoption), child services workers never once recorded any concerns about the family or how the two parents were raising their new daughter. A source familiar with the case clarified to Meduza that Kristina turned 10 earlier this year.

The family refused to treat Kristina and other children with conventional medicine, citing religious objections. According to the news agency Rosbalt, the priest and his wife believe that modern medicines cause “more harm than good,” which apparently led to their decision to deny their daughter antiretroviral drugs. They’re also convinced that AIDS is a “hoax invented by the pharmaceutical companies” to make money on prescription medicine. Without treatment, Kristina’s disease progressed. After her most recent routine examination at the city’s AIDS Center, where Kristina was registered, doctors found that her health had declined to a critical state. In response to the doctors’ requests to hospitalize her, Kristina’s family took her to a clinic in Germany that tries to treat HIV patients with “alternative methods,” feeding them only nutritional supplements.

In 2016, Kristina was ordered hospitalized by court order. Faced with her adoptive parents’ refusal to give her medical treatment, staff at St. Petersburg’s AIDS Center appealed to the city’s child services, the district attorney, and the children’s rights commissioner. The court sided with the doctors and required the parents to hospitalize the girl, and to provide her with the regular examinations and treatments prescribed by physicians. Even after this verdict, however, the family refused to give Kristina any AIDS medication, consenting to treatment verbally but never following through. “Child services agencies assured doctors that everything was fine and the child was receiving treatment, and the bailiffs threw up their hands, not knowing how they could force parents to give pills to their child,” said a spokesperson for the medical publication Doctor Peter.

Kristina was finally hospitalized after she was brought to a private clinic, where one of the doctors called the paramedics. After this, Kristina spent more than four months in the Petersburg Children’s City Hospital. She was in intensive care, but her adoptive parents never stopped trying to bring her home from the hospital. According to the news agency Interfax, they even wanted to kidnap her from the hospital and take her to the sea. Kristina eventually returned home, but not for long: her parents stopped her treatment, and she had to be hospitalized again.

On August 27, 2017, Kristina died. The office of Svetlana Agapitova, St. Petersburg’s children’s rights commissioner, put out a statement saying that the girl’s treatment came too late, leaving her with almost zero chance of recovery. Evgeny Voronin, the Health Ministry’s main outside specialist on problems with HIV diagnosis and treatment, has said Kristina’s case is “another death on the consciences of AIDS dissidents.”

Kristina’s adoptive parents could face criminal liability for her death. Prosecutors in Russia often come after AIDS deniers with criminal charges for refusing to treat their children. One of the most recent cases occurred in Tyumen, where a 34-year-old local woman who doesn’t believe in HIV refused to treat her three-year-old daughter, who died from her illness in April 2017. The mother was charged with negligent homicide in a suit brought by her husband, who was the child’s father. On July 31, the court closed the case, after the two parties reconciled, but the district attorney is appealing the ruling.

Officially, the Russian Orthodox Church does not deny the existence of the human immunodeficiency virus. According to the Church’s policy on its “role in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS” and its “work with people living with HIV/AIDS,” HIV is “one of the gravest threats facing countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States.” And it’s not Church policy to refuse medical treatment, though “HIV dissidents” in Russia are particularly fond of a video where Dmitry Smirnov, the head of the Moscow Patriarch’s Family Protection Committee, argues that there’s no such thing as HIV. “AIDS doesn’t come from some made-up virus, but from four different causes: stress, depression, an immune system weakened by vaccinations, and excessive drinking,” Smirnov insists.

“The Church is realistic about this issue. We reject ‘AIDS dissidents,’” says Archpriest Maxim Pletnyev, the head of the St. Petersburg diocese’s care center for HIV patients.

Elena Orlova-Morozova, the medical director of the nonprofit “AIDS Center,” told Meduza that AIDS deniers who refuse treatment on religious grounds are relatively rare, compared to people who believe conspiracy theories about the pharmaceutical companies or think the HIV treatment itself is harmful.

Activists who manage a Vkontakte group called “HIV/AIDS Deniers and Their Children,” which monitors parents who refuse antiretroviral medicines, claim that 60 people have died in the past several years after refusing to receive medical treatment. The group says 13 of these victims have been 10 years old or younger.

Russian text by Pavel Merzlikin, translation by Kevin Rothrock

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